Thursday, September 6, 2012

PF 2012 Climate Change - Moral Agency

For part 1 of this topic analysis click here.
For more on Public Forum topics, click here.


On the Moral Agency of States
I mentioned in the first part of this analysis it is possible for the Con to argue states / nations / countries are not moral agents.  It is a difficult debate because the philosophical principles are not easy to convey to a judge in a four minute speech when humans have a tendency to personify and attribute human qualities to animals, vehicles, computers, corporations, and nations.  Additionally one is met with a huge array of arguments to attribute moral responsibility to states particularly regarding the issue of climate change as a way to force some kind of response to what is seen as a growing and, as some believe, preventable problem.

So after a fairly extensive search, I will leave you these cuttings from several sources, not all of which are obtainable from a simple google search.  For what it is worth:

The Morality of Nations: An Aristotelian Approach by Lloyd P. Gerson essay in the book, Aristotle's Politics Today, edited by Lenn E. Goodman and Robert b. Talisse, SUNY Press, 2008
Unless it can be established that nations are moral agents over and above the moral agents that comprise them, the very idea of a normative basis for international relations is unintelligible. It bears emphasizing that the accusation of unintelligibility should not be watered down into a rejection of one particular moral theory in favor of another. The point I am making is not, say, utilitarianism is wrong whereas some deontological theory is right. Nor am I making the point that that the correct moral theory at the international level is different from the correct one at the individual level. The problem I see is more radical than that of sorting out the pros and cons of moral theories. The problem is that no moral theory makes any sense unless we can understand what a moral agent is. If nations are not moral agents, then the application of moral theory to international relations hardly makes more sense than it does as applied to the jungle.

I shall start by making a distinction among agents, that is, a distinction between a moral agent and a nonmoral agent. What I aim to show is that all and only persons are moral agents and that nations are not persons...If nations are not moral agents, then it is a sort of category mistake to suppose that nations have moral obligations or rights or duties or that they can bear moral guilt or blame.  Many people who would concede this claim strictly conceived would maintain that, nevertheless, it is desirable, or even inevitable that we adopt the fiction that allows us to make moral judgments about the "citizens" of the community of nations.  I suppose that this fiction is not entirely insidious, so long as it is agreed that all the claims about moral duties, obligation, rights, and so forth, made in regard to nations are fictions, too.  Thus, for example, to claim that one nation has an obligation to ameliorate the circumstances of another nation (or its members) is to implicate oneself in a fiction.  The truth of this assertion is not, so far as I can see, affected by the hypothetical truth of another assertion; namely that each and every human being has an obligation to ameliorate the circumstances of every other human being insfar as possible.

The Morality of Nations
Author(s): W. R. Sorley
Source: International Journal of Ethics, Vol. 1, No. 4 (Jul., 1891), pp. 427-446
But the state has to do not only with its own citizens, but also with other states. Can any ethical principle hold of its behavior towards them? Is there any such thing as international morality which bears to states a similar relation to that which the laws of private morality bear to individual men? In this region of foreign relations the conflict between the different views of national morality is accentuated and brought to a point. There is a sufficiently strong analogy between the state and the individual to give an appearance of reason to the assertion that, when different states are brought into relation, their conduct should be governed by the same laws as those which regulate the conduct of individuals. But, on the other hand, the analogy is weak enough at places to give support to such a contention as that urged by Lord Lytton. "First of all," he argues, "the subjects of private morals, that is to say, individuals, differ from the subjects of public morals, that is to say, nations, so widely that hardly a single proposition applicable to the one can be properly applied to the others. In the next place, of the classes of obligations which constitute private morals, only one, namely, justice, has a place in public morals at all; and the sort of justice which finds its place in public morals is totally different from the justice which relates to individuals."

Sci Eng Ethics. 2012 March; 18(1): 49–67.
Published online 2011 May 1. doi:  10.1007/s11948-011-9276-0
PMCID: PMC3275719.
The Problem of Many Hands: Climate Change as an Example
Ibo van de Poel, et al
As we saw in the previous section, the attribution of individual moral responsibility usually requires that five conditions are met: capacity, causality, knowledge, freedom and wrong-doing. In relation to responsibility for climate change, capacity is not an issue. Most individuals that we possibly want to hold responsible for climate change have the right capacities to qualify as moral agents. Causality is, however, a more contentious issue...“we should not hold people responsible for harms by calling their acts causes of harm when their acts are not at all unusual, assuming that they did not intend the harm” (Sinnott-Armstrong 2005: 290).

The third condition for responsibility is knowledge...Dale Jamieson mentions it in an article on responsibility and climate change in this journal:
According to a recent Rasmussen Report, 44% of American voters say that climate change is primarily caused by long-term planetary trends rather than human activity.…It could be argued that these Americans are culpable in their ignorance of the relation between human action and climate change, but when prominent public figures are climate change deniers and science education is so obviously inadequate it is difficult to make this case (Jamieson 2010: 437, footnote 11).

Also the freedom condition is relevant with respect to responsibility for climate change. Some contributions to global warming might be considered unavoidable or involuntary, like breathing, which produces carbon dioxide. Usually discussions about responsibility for climate change, therefore, focus on luxury emissions rather than on survival emissions (although the line between both may not always be clear). But even in the case of luxury emissions, absence of coercion may not be enough to call an act voluntary. One of us, Jessica Nihlén Fahlquist (2009a), has argued that people should have reasonable alternatives in order to be reasonably held responsible for environmental problems. What alternatives are reasonable might thereby depend on contextual and situational features; alternatives that are reasonable for rich people may not be reasonable for less prosperous people.

Let us, finally, look at the wrong-doing condition. This condition is the main target of both Sinnott-Armstrong and Johnson. Sinnott-Armstrong discusses a large number of possible moral principles on basis of which individuals may have a moral obligation to avoid global warming as individuals; he rejects, however, all of them. Also Johnson argues that, despite what many people believe, individuals do not have a moral obligation to restrain themselves to a sustainable level of consumption in a tragedy of the commons.

Click here for Pro and Con frameworks


  1. Would the following con argument concievably be effective:

    1. A state's only moral duty is to its own citizens
    2. For developed nations, the cost of mitigating climate change would outweigh the costs of climate change
    3. Thus, mitigating climate change would be morally reprehensible

    1. Yes, I think it works fine. Look at social contract theory and realism to support contention 1. Contention 2 will be a little harder to support so you may may want to look at impacts other than costs if you have trouble finding good sources.

  2. how would one quantify the definition mitigate exactly?

    1. That is a good question because I asked it myself elsewhere in this analysis, several times. There is no quantification for mitigate so it is up to the teams to establish and justify their own if the case depends on it. As I said, if one person in the U.S. sells their car and buys a bicycle, carbon emissions will decrease, so is that mitigating the effects? Perhaps not but how DO we measure it? Some plans described in evidence (including evidence I have linked) suggest certain rates of temperature change over certain periods of years and that may serve as a quantification. So it depends on what can be supported by logic, evidence, persuasion or whatever. I really can't answer beyond that.


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